Perception and Service Dogs

This entry is part 21 of 25 in the series Service Dog Training
An incorrectly-worded service dog sign ("Seeing Eye Dog or ADA certified")

Don’t do this.

I stopped on my way into the shop to take a photo of the sign on their door. Then I went in, did my shopping, and then gently mentioned during checkout that they might want to revise the wording on their no-pets sign to be more accommodating (and legally acceptable). The shop owners, two women behind the counter, were not aware that their wording was exclusive to many users of service dogs and also not even feasible — there is no such thing as “ADA-certified” — and were eager to learn more. One took notes as I answered questions.

The clerk at a convenience store smiled as Mindy and I approached the counter to pay for my drink. “Your dog is cute, ” she said. “What exactly does she do for you?”

I explained that I was training Mindy, that she didn’t assist me or anyone yet, but that in general it was considered unmannerly to ask a user of a service dog about their medical issues. The young woman hadn’t realized the implication of her question and agreed that it could be invasive.

Most violations of service animal law are not intentional, or even from a position against service animals. Many people use “Seeing Eye dog” as a generic term, without realizing that the Seeing Eye is just one specific organization training dogs for just one specific disability. Saying “Seeing Eye dogs only” is like saying only persons with a specific brand of wheelchair may enter — but their intentions were probably friendly.

At the other end of the ignorance spectrum are people who are actively against service animals and think the laws don’t apply to them. I was present when a shop owner stopped a disabled woman and her perfectly behaved dog at the door, shouting at her from across the room to go away because she couldn’t bring that dog inside, she didn’t care if it were a service dog, just go away. When I stared in shock, she turned to me and asked indignantly, “Is she with you? Then what do you care? That dog might have peed on my floor or something.”

That was one of the rare moments when I really used positive punishment, in a timely manner and without any regret.

girl in Queen Elsa costume holding harness of pit bull service dog dressed as reindeer with antlers and jingle bells

The team in question. Most terrifying pit bull EVER. No wonder he was afraid to even speak to the girl. /sarcasm/

And then there was the incident this week of the mall Santa who refused to greet a girl because her service dog was a pit bull. (The dog, by all accounts, was well-behaved and not disruptive.) When the parents offered to remove the dog and asked if the Santa would even just wave at the girl from a distance, he allegedly refused and said “because they support pit bulls.”

Okay, pit bull discrimination is one (stupid) thing, but refusing to wave to a little girl even without her scary dog? How do you justify that?

To be fair, mall management fired that so-called Santa and invited the girl back for a special event with another Santa, so at least there’s a happy ending. But still.

Perceptions matter for a lot in this field. Many disabilities are “invisible,” in that the person is not obviously blind or in a wheelchair. I have a client who is subject to frequent falls, among other things, and one of her dog’s purposes is to steady her, like an intelligent crutch or walker which can get under your hand. This woman has been shouted at for using the handicapped parking and for taking her dog in public, because she’s not in a wheelchair. No, guys, the dog keeps her out of the wheelchair and gives her mobility and independence. That’s the point.

(This woman has also been stopped repeatedly in the grocery by women who want to take photo of their kids with the large dog. Seriously, people. Would you stop someone shopping and ask if your kid can pose with their oxygen machine or power chair? No? Then it’s not appropriate with a service dog, either.)

The point is, perception — and lack of perception — matters. Just because a disability isn’t readily visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because a dog is a pit bull doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or the people with it are criminals. Just because you heard of Seeing Eye dogs first doesn’t mean that’s the only type of service animal out there.

And just because someone doesn’t know better doesn’t mean he’s a jerk. It’s when he does know better and still chooses discriminatory behavior that he becomes a jerk.

Make good choices. 🙂

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. That’s great that the shop owners were so willing to talk to you and get the correct information.

    There is still so much that the dog training community needs to do to educate the general public about service dogs. There is still so much ignorance and misunderstanding out there.

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